Every March 17, millions of people pause to reflect on their Irish heritage. Conceived as a Saint's Day in the Catholic Church, Saint Patrick's Day is now a time of celebration for millions. However, many of us have little knowledge of the man whose name we celebrate.
First of all, Saint Patrick wasn't even Irish. He was a Roman citizen. The place of his birth is disputed. Many biographies claim that he was born in Kilpatrick, near Dumbarton in Scotland, in the year 387. Others claim he was born in the village of Bannavem of Taburnia (vico banavem taburniae in his Confession), which has never been securely identified. Still others claim that Saint Patrick was born somewhere along the coastline of Wales or in northern France or in the settlement of Bannaventa in Northamptonshire.
His original name is recorded as Maewyn Succat. In his Confessio, Patrick names his father as Calpornius, a deacon, son of Potitus, who was Romano-British. A questionable old tradition makes his mother from the upper-class Gaulish family of Martin of Tours, though Patrick makes no such prideful claim.
At the age of sixteen, Patrick was carried off into captivity by Irish marauders and was sold as a slave to a chieftain named Milchu in Dalriada, a territory of the present county of Antrim in Ireland. He was soon sold to another chieftain in the area. The future saint spent six years tending his master's flocks near the modern town of Ballymena. During this time he learned to speak fluent Celtic.
After six years of bondage, Patrick escaped, apparently by simply walking away at a convenient opportunity. He wandered for some time, eventually finding his way to Westport. There he found a ship ready to set sail and was allowed on board. In a few days he was in Britain, safe under Roman rule. He then traveled extensively to other lands and studied religion. Patrick spent time in St. Martin's monastery at Tours and at the island sanctuary of Lérins. He met Saint Germain and became a student of the great bishop. When Germain was commissioned by the Holy See to proceed to Britain to combat the erroneous teachings of Pelagius, he chose Patrick to be one of his missionary companions.
Pope St. Celestine the First had taken note of the young man's abilities and commissioned Patrick with the mission of gathering the Irish race into the Catholic Church; he also gave him the name "Patercius" or "Patritius." It was probably in the summer months of the year 433 that Patrick and his companions landed at the mouth of the Vantry River in Ireland, close by Wicklow Head. The Druids were against his missionary work and wanted to kill him, so Patrick searched for friendly territory in which to enter on his mission. Near Slemish, the missionary was horrified to see in the distance the fort of his old master, Milchu, enveloped in flames. It seems the fame of Patrick's marvelous power of miracles had preceded him. In anticipation of Patrick’s arrival, Milchu had gathered his treasures into his mansion and set it on fire, casting himself into the flames in a fit of frenzy. An ancient record adds, "His pride could not endure the thought of being vanquished by his former slave."
Saint Patrick traveled all over Ireland, preaching wherever people gathered. His sermons were not always well received, and many attempted to murder him. Saint Patrick wrote in his "Confessio" that twelve times he and his companions were seized and carried off as captives. On one occasion in particular, he was loaded with chains, and his death was decreed. However, Saint Patrick always managed to escape death. He converted thousands to Christianity and built many churches. It is recorded that he consecrated no fewer than 350 bishops. Legends attribute many miracles to Saint Patrick.
Saint Patrick died on 17 March, and that date is now dedicated to his memory. While the day and month is known, the year is not so certain. Various histories and biographies claim that he died in A.D. 462, 492, or 493. It is not known for sure where his remains were laid, either, although Downpatrick in County Down in the North of Ireland is thought to be his final resting place, as its name seems to proclaim.
There are many Web sites devoted to Saint Patrick, providing a wealth of material. You can read more at http://www.ireland-information.com/saintpatricksday.htm, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11554a.htm, and many others.